Lately, I’ve been fielding questions from aspiring script- and screenwriters (most recently from an old high school classmate and, before that, a colleague of mine who is apparently more creative than most of us!) who have asked me, “How can I protect my new TV show or movie idea?” In this post, I’ll go over what I usually tell these creative types in advance of their “pitch” to a producer, studio, or some other (actual or perceived) Hollywood insider they’ve managed to get in front of.
Can Ideas Be Protected?
Before we dive in, you need to understand one thing– ideas (in and of themselves) cannot be protected. In fairness, it’s not just the script- or screenwriter hopefuls that sometimes hold this mistaken belief. I hear it at least a few times a week from various entrepreneurial folk that come to see me.
To state this principle of intellectual property law another way, “stock” (i.e., generic) concepts or propositions are not protectable. Thus, your idea for a sitcom about a group of survivors trying to battle an alien invasion, or a mismatched pair of detectives solving crimes is unlikely to receive protection.
An easier way to think about it is if your show treatment sounds cliche, then it probably is! Even before there weren’t a bazillion channels on sat-TV or new content hungry players like Netflix and Amazon, was there really that much originality out there on TV, let alone the silver screen?
Instead, at least as far as the law of copyright goes, any protection of your particular TV series or movie idea occurs within your specific and (hopefully) unique expression developed beyond that initial base idea. Copyright protection for your TV series or film screenplay comes from not just having your pitch turned into some “tangible” (usually written) form but, perhaps more importantly, making sure that your expression of that general idea is both original and hyper-specific that takes your story to a level beyond just the stock concept.
5 Ways You Can Protect Your TV or Movie Pitch
- Be Details Oriented
It may be cliche to say “details matter”, but this is where copyright protection of your proposed TV series or film will lie. Even before your pitch, you should be prepared to fully describe not just the show or movie idea itself but, moreover, the individual specifics and the details, all of which should be original.
Practically speaking, this can mean fleshing out your dramatic series, sitcom, reality, etc., show with as many particulars as possible. Your series or film treatment should include a carefully crafted explanation of the show (location, time period, conditions, etc., etc.), specific episodes or storyline arcs, and granular descriptions of your actual characters (both main and recurring) and plot lines. Include even photos or renderings, if you have them. Once polished into a presentable draft, it should be put into a single, integrated document file that can be uploaded to the U.S. Copyright Office as part of the registration process (more on that below).
Thinking through and carefully crafting a truly original tele- or screenplay that clearly describes in (as exact as possible) detail the plotlines, characters, resolution, etc. ahead of time before the big pitch will put you in the best position to protect your work.
- Protect That Finished Draft
Now that you’ve encapsulated your TV show or film into a draft script or screenplay with well thought-out and precise details, it’s time for some pre-pitch protection. Consider archiving your original draft teleplay or screenplay with a third-party registry. There are a number of industry-accepted platforms like CreatorsVault or TVWritersVault that are designed to do just this.
Next, do not hesitate to liberally use the circle “C’” or © symbol in your draft, like including it on the cover page and in headers or footers in the draft. While doing this alone will not prevent the stealing of your creation, it can at least help to serve as a strong deterrent against infringement. Having the copyright symbol on your work puts not only the recipient, but also the entire world, on notice that you have asserted the various copyrights in this specific work. The symbol also makes proving deliberate or knowing infringement of your work a little easier in a court of law. Besides, unlike use of the circle “R” for trademark, using the © symbol on your works is perfectly legal to do even without actual registration and, hey, it doesn’t cost you a penny!
Many people mistakenly (or unknowingly) skip the above recommendations in favor of going straight to the U.S. Copyright Office to seek registration. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, as a creative type who might possibly have that next great TV show or movie pitch, you really do so at your own (legal and perhaps financial) peril.
At the same time, it’s hard to overstate the importance of registration (which I’ve covered in several other posts). Thanks to a key Supreme Court decision a few years ago, without having registered your script you cannot even file a case (or credibly threaten to sue) for copyright infringement, removing a huge deterrent to theft or infringement of your pitch, as well as removing the possibility of selecting statutory damages and even recovery of attorney’s fees (thereby taking away a huge incentive for that copyright infringement lawyer or firm you may need to employ). In addition to the © symbol, formal registration would also give you a copyright registration number to add to the bottom of your draft script’s title page.
While it will depend on your particular budget, if you really have managed to line up a meeting with a network executive or Hollywood producer, you may want to consider paying the USCO extra to expedite your registration filing. Ideally, you want to have that registration certificate well in hand before your pitch meeting.
Lastly, after registering your script, make sure to also join (if you haven’t already) and register your work with the Writer’s Guild of America West.
- Get a Non-Disclosure…If You Can
Now on to the actual pitch. See if the person or outfit you’re meeting with will sign a non-disclosure agreement (also sometimes called a “confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement”)
Keep in mind that not all executives, producers, etc. will be open to this but, calm down–this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re planning to swipe your show or film idea. After all, the major studios and significant players likely already have creative executives and teams developing various projects that run the gamut of subjects, themes, and genres, including ones that may perhaps be very similar to your draft. They may not want to (or be allowed to) take on the potential liability (whether breach of contract or copyright infringement) risk by signing an NDA with you on a pitch that might end up being too similar to one of these already in-development.
Therefore, getting the signed “one-way” NDA is a nice-to-have, however, there are differences of opinion as to its actual worth. If the Hollywood executive or junior producer you’re meeting with is resistant or outright refuses, well then you need to make a judgment call.
To paraphrase what I often have to tell startup founder clients, the fact is that your draft teleplay or screenplay has no chance of being produced if no one knows it!
The goal of the other best practices described in this post is to create redundant, layers of protection of your draft pitch, so that all is not absolutely lost if you didn’t get your pitch participant to sign an NDA.
- Proof of Exposure
Finally, regardless of how it went, create some evidence of exposure of your pitch or draft. Perhaps this can be done through your “thank you for meeting with me” e-mail or note to the executive, including a reminder about how that person or persons gained access to the draft, along with references to the specific WGA or WritersVault number for the draft, if applicable. The idea is to establish proof of one of the key elements of a copyright infringement claim; actual access to the copyrighted work, in addition to being courteous and professional.
Image Person Reading a Script on White Paper courtesy of Ron Lach via Pexels (image cropped)
Ben Bhandhusavee is the Managing Attorney for BHANDLAW, PLLC, a startup, technology, and e-commerce law practice advising founders and management teams on company startup, corporate and technology transactions, e-commerce, as well as Internet privacy concerns. The firm serves corporate and individual clients throughout Arizona, the United States, and internationally. Our offices are conveniently located along the Camelback corridor in Phoenix’s financial district. For more information about our Copyright Law practice, feel free to reach out using the contact form on the right or call us at (602) 222-5542 to schedule a meeting. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn or Avvo.